International conference coverage: The people side of Agile Testing Days

Agile expert Lisa Crispin comes home inspired from Agile Testing Days in Potsdam, Germany. In this first part of a two-part series, Crispin summarizes sessions relating to teaming, learning and stepping out of your comfort zone.

I love conferences where my own favorite themes run through many different sessions. Agile Testing Days, November 14 – 17 in Potsdam, Germany, expanded on my pet topics and filled my brain with so many new ideas and techniques. I think I could write a whole book about it, but I’ve settled on a two part-series. In this first part, I’ll tell you about some of the sessions that explored teams, motivation and learning.

Whole-team approach

Johanna Rothman started off the conference by emphasizing the importance of the whole team working together. In her keynote on “Agile Testing and Test Management,” Johanna explained the manager’s role in building trusting relationships. She noted that trust is what keeps us happily working in our current job. Functional managers of Agile teams should take note of Johanna’s insights into the need for leaders to provide feedback and coaching, working alongside the rest of the team.

Johanna’s talk set the tone for Agile Testing Days. Subsequent sessions continued to explore the themes of collaboration, making teams work, and managing Agile testers and teams. Practical sessions with techniques we could take home and try, along with hands-on practice in the Test Lab rounded out the program.

Learning

David Evans’ session on what developers (meaning programmers) and testers can learn from each other included a terrific metaphor that has stayed in my mind. “Acceptance TDD slows down development just as passengers slow down a bus.” If speed were the point, a bus driver wouldn’t stop to pick up passengers. A bus that doesn’t serve passengers might be fast, but it provides no value.

Dave noted that a friend will help you move a sofa, but only a best friend will help you move a dead body. (I might not be remembering that exactly right, but you get the point). This made me think back to Johanna’s point about the importance of trust. What I took away from this is that testers and programmers are and should be best friends. We have a lot to teach each other and learn together.

What makes a team work

Linda Rising discomfited us by showing that none of us is without prejudice. She described several scientific, controlled research projects, as well as more impromptu experiments, illustrating how easily we see another group as "those people." These may explain why fewer and fewer women stay in IT - perceived gender differences lead to a self-fulfilling stereotype.

Humans love to be together and work towards a common goal. This desire is stronger than our need to divide and stereotype. For example, in WWI, the enemy trenches were so close together, each side could see the other bringing in food, or moving the wounded to safety. They formed an implicit agreement to only fire at each other at certain times. They cooperated with each other. What was their common goal? They all wanted to go home.

Is this why Agile works? Agile teams trust each other and ask each other for help – we need each other. Individuals on a small team make an extra effort to achieve. They form more positive and supportive relationships. Linda noted that it's nice if her husband brings her flowers, but even better if he asks her to help him solve a problem he’s having. We love to be needed!

There will be videos of all these talks on the Agile Testing Days site later, but you can see a similar talk Linda gave recently at Agile Vancouver.

Uncomfortable about uncertainty

One important takeaway from Linda's talk is that we're hard-wired to be decisive. In most work environments, certainty is rewarded, even when it's wrong. Esther Derby repeated this idea, saying that we'd rather be certain and wrong than uncertain and right. I wonder if this is one reason it's so hard for us to get out of our comfort zone.

Esther suggested that we try to visualize these structures, and see what factors are involved. If we don't figure out the structures that underlie undesirable behavior, we can't change it. Try small actions and small experiments to start change. It's natural to look for some person to blame when things aren't working. If it seems like a people problem, start drawing. See what patterns you can find.

Esther’s hand-drawn slides have long inspired me to get better at drawing and diagramming to try to look for patterns. Esther reminds us to look for the “why,” “how” and “when,” and not just spring into action in a vain attempt to effect change.

Getting out of your comfort zone

Liz Keogh expanded on the theme of uncertainty, quoting Dan North, "we'd rather be wrong than uncertain." According to Liz, in order to feel certain, we make up models in our heads to support our decisions, rather than working harder to find out what we don't know.

Liz enlightened us about how we filter data that we observe. We generate assumptions, generate patterns based on the ones we already know, draw conclusions and build beliefs. Our filters are based on our beliefs, which makes them self-fulfilling. This echoed back to Linda’s keynote.

The most flawed commitments are the ones we make in our heads. To cope with uncertainty, Liz suggested using real options, a principle popularized by Chris Matts and Olaf Maasen. We should postpone our decisions as long as possible while we gather more data.

Liz got us further out of our comfort zone by hypnotizing Huib Schoots (who seemed to volunteer for everything at Agile Testing Days, including substituting at the last minute for an absent presenter) onstage. She invited the audience to participate, asking us to visualize a time and place where we particularly enjoyed learning. Some people may think of a classroom situation, others of reading a book, there are many ways and places to learn.

One of Liz’s most memorable quotes was: “There are two types of people. Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.”

The learning zone

Lasse Koskela observed that we all have a comfort zone, and a pain zone. We also have a learning zone, which overlaps with these two. He urged us to move from cooperation between roles to collaboration without boundaries to get better team performance. We don’t like it when someone wants to change our identities and move us outside our comfort zone.

When faced with the need for a specialty you don’t have, Lasse’s solution is to break boundaries, do the best you can, and grab people to give you quick feedback.

Jurgen Appelo’s keynote continued this theme. He asked us if we were aligning our work with our intrinsic motivators, challenging us, “What do you see in YOUR future?” Whom you know may be more important than what you know. High performers are distinguished by larger, more diversified personal networks.

Like several of the previous presenters, Jurgen recommended visualizing goals and mission statements, using metaphors, stories, pictures or videos. He wrapped up the key points of other speakers by asking us, “Are you improving by adapting, anticipating and experimenting?” Then Jurgen got WAY out of his comfort zone by channeling a popular European singer and serenading us with a song in German about Agile.

 

Check out part two to find out more about some of the more technical sessions at Agile Testing Days.

 

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